While new Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden edits his version of the West Coast playbook, two deans straight out of the Bill Walsh School of Scoring look on with approval emeritus.
Sam Wyche, chancellor of the no-huddle, and Bruce Coslet, provost of play-action, realize the textbook has evolved and multiplied since the days they ruled the lecture hall before the turn of the century. But they still think the basic elements can revive the heirs of Ken Anderson and Rodney Holman and Boomer Esiason and Dan Ross.
"It's going to be refreshing," Coslet said Wednesday from his porch in Naples, Fla. "No one is running the pure West Coast anymore, but the basics of it have proven to be solid."
"Everyone has their own wrinkle that makes it a little bit different," Wyche said from his computer desk in Pickens, S.C. "But it's still trying to influence the defense with four and five receivers out of different personnel groups disguising a lot of the same plays and concepts with a high-percentage passing game."
Of course, no one knows exactly what is in Gruden's hard drive and how much of it is West Coast and how much of it has mushroomed into other schemes. But Gruden said when he arrived last week that his offense has been handed down to him from brother Jon, and he learned the offense under Walsh disciples Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid.
So it is of note that both Wyche, a quarterback, and Coslet, a tight end, played in the first model that Walsh crafted out of Bengals founder Paul Brown's offense at Spinney Field, and are channeling history. It really ought to be called "The Eighth Street Viaduct Offense" instead of The West Coast, but, like Wyche says, "You're a little late. I think West Coast is going to stick."
It stuck in Cincinnati as Wyche and Coslet grew into head coaches. In their 11 full seasons, the Bengals never finished lower than 17th in NFL offense and were in the top 10 eight times. Dick LeBeau, named head coach when Coslet resigned the morning after a pummeling by a Marvin Lewis defense early in the 2000 season, hired Steelers wide receivers coach Bob Bratkowski as offensive coordinator before the 2001 season and he brought in his own system. Bratkowski's firing last month signaled another sea of change for the franchise.
And it was hard to quibble with what Bratkowski did early on. He raised the pass offense from the dead before the Bengals drafted quarterback Carson Palmer and with Palmer they smashed the club's season passing, rushing and receiving marks while finishing in the top 10 from 2005-07.
But the Bengals haven't finished above 20th since.
The system stayed in Cincinnati even when Walsh left to give birth to the 49ers dynasty. When Wyche went into coaching, he hooked up with Walsh in San Francisco to coach quarterbacks and Joe Montana to perfection against Walsh's first pupil, Anderson, in Super Bowl XXIII.
When Wyche became the Bengals head coach in 1984, Coslet became his righthand man and offensive coordinator as they built one of the biggest wrinkles of all in a no-huddle scheme that dominated the NFL rankings. Coslet also broke into the NFL with Walsh in San Francisco before Brown hired him back to the Bengals following an interview spiced with whale-watching in Brown's La Jolla, Calif., home.
Wyche and Coslet know Palmer is talking about a trade or retirement, but both believe the West Coast can revive the kid for the West Coast.
"Quarterbacks love it because of the design of the routes; someone should always be open," Wyche said. "You create a triangle downfield with three receivers. You're controlling linebackers with underneath receivers and as soon as the deep guys are covered, the short routes are open. When the defense drops down to cover the underneath stuff, you stretch the field. The defense responds to you and it's like an accordion."
Coslet is close friends with Palmer's college coach, current Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, and he watched Palmer execute the concept under USC offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. Coslet believes accuracy is everything. It's the major reason, he thinks, for the Bengals' struggles in his post-Boomer period of David Klingler-Jeff Blake-Neil O'Donnell-Akili Smith.
"It's a passing game with slants and quick outs and Carson made a living throwing those slants and crossing routes out of a three-step drop from under center," Coslet said. "If you've always got him back there in seven-step drops holding on to the ball, it's hard for the protection to hold up and he's going to get hammered. He doesn't have to have great mobility, but you can move him just enough. You've got to be accurate in this offense and there's no question that Carson is one of the most accurate guys out there. He's made some unbelievable throws."
Jay Gruden and Lewis have talked about the elements the club seeks and it sure sounds like West Coast stuff. Ball quickly out of the quarterback's hand. Quick routes. Coordination between the run and pass to put bite into play-action. Oodles of personnel groupings.
No matter the quarterback is in this system in this era, Wyche says he has to be accurate and smart. The rest is gravy.
"It's always nice to have height like Peyton Manning or speed like Michael Vick or a rocket arm," Wyche said. "But the No. 1 thing is being smart and the next thing is being accurate. Look at the guy in New Orleans (Drew Brees) and Aaron Rodgers (in Green Bay) and those are the two things they've got going for them. They aren't all big or fast."
Wyche and Coslet watching the Andy Reids in Philadelphia, the Jon Grudens in Tampa, and the Mike McCarthys in Green Bay is a little like Bill Gates Googling Facebook. The same idea is there, but now higher on the evolutionary scale. Wyche thinks what Manning executes with the Colts no-huddle is the closest thing to what he had in Cincinnati when he invented the fastbreak game with Boomer Esiason barking at the line as Manning's analog ancestor.
"They've evolved it. They've got that double snap. But even the colleges now are looking back at the sideline before they snap it," Wyche said.
And a lot of times Manning is in the shotgun, which used to be an anathema for West Coast purists.
"Walsh hated the shotgun. Joe Montana never got in the shotgun until he went to Kansas City," Coslet said.
But after recently playing a round of golf with former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, Coslet realized the Colts weren't doing much more than Esiason's Bengals.
"He said all they did pretty much for five years was three-step drop Manning from under center. And run the naked bootleg (run-fake with a quarterback rollout the opposite way). Plus, they moved him a little (in the pocket) and used hard play-action," Coslet said.
All of which are West Coast staples. And the Colts showed how teams can go deep like Esiason did to Eddie Brown and his 39 TD catches from 1985-90 while not exposing the quarterback to pressure.
"The five-step hitch and go was one of our quickest throws," Coslet said.
One of the things that has evolved in the West Coast besides the shotgun is the use of three receivers. Wyche was able to switch into it out of a two-back set because of running back James Brooks' ability to split out as a receiver. But Coslet disdains the liberal use of three-receiver sets on early downs because of how it breeds blitzes out of nickel and dime packages.
The pure West Coast is a two-receiver set with various forms of backs and tight ends. Wyche says the key is the ability to run the same play out of a variety of personnel groups "because it forces the defense to try and match up."
(One position that figures to be a major component of the new system is tight end, not only because of the flexibility it brings in personnel but also because Jermaine Gresham is the successor to Rodney Holman, Wyche's gamebreaking three-time Pro Bowler. Palmer lobbied for Gresham to be used extensively last season and no doubt Gruden agrees.)
But we won't know what's in Gruden's brew until they get on the field and no one knows that, either.
Wyche and Coslet know of Gruden and his background and think he'll do well. As head coach of the Buccaneers from 1992-95, Wyche saw Gruden quarterback Tampa's Arena team and became aware of his coaching success in the AFL before joining his brother's Buccaneers staff.
"From being around him I know he's a good coach and I've heard good things about him," Wyche said. "I would think that the experience in the Arena League would be helpful. It's a different game, obviously, but you have to be creative."
After playing against some of Jon Gruden's offenses while he was a coordinator and a head coach, Coslet came away with high regard for him.
(It will be recalled that when Jon Gruden was the offensive coordinator for the Eagles in 1997, they were the only team that besmirched Esiason's comeback with 44 points. The next year, when Gruden was the Raiders head coach, Oakland put up 411 yards in a win over the Bengals.)
"When you played one of his teams, you always had to know what you were doing; they did a lot of things," Coslet said. "He's an excellent coach and since (Jay) worked for him I'm sure he's got some pretty good ideas."
He hears the knock that Jay Gruden has no NFL experience calling plays and he laughed as he recalled 1983. That's when Bengals offensive coordinator Lindy Infante told Paul Brown he had signed to coach in the USFL after the season. That's also when Brown told him he was fired.
Coslet, the 36-year-old special teams and tight ends coach, was told he was calling the plays.
"Three weeks before training camp; I was scared to death when I called my first game," said Coslet, who survived to lead the Bengals to 330 yards per game and a No. 14 ranking.
With a CBA stalemate brewing, three weeks is all Gruden might get with his team before it starts playing.
"He'll be fine," Coslet said from the porch and history. "He grew up in a football family and he's been around the game his entire life."
He'll be even better, he says, with Palmer as the triggerman.